Teaching Dialogue: FromBerkeley to Borobudur, via Bangalore

At the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, I have the privilege of teaching dialogue in several ways and several places. Berkeley and the Bay Area provide one of the best atmospheres for interfaith experience in this country. But grants, from first the Luce and nowthe Lilly Foundations, have helped us conduct theological immersion courses in Indonesia and India, as well – two of the liveliest countries for dialogue. In January 2006 we traveled to Indonesia, to the bustling Javanese university city of Yogyakarta. There were 10 of us, eight JSTB Master of Divinity students, myself as professor and Fr.Ted Arroyo (NOR),our intrepid dean for cross-cultural initiatives. We joined, at the Jesuits’ Sanata Dharma University,with seven Indonesian theology students (a laywoman, three diocesan seminarians and three Jesuit scholastics) and eight Jesuit and lay professors, plus Fr.TomMichel (IDO), the international secretary for interreligious dialogue serving the Jesuit General and a professor of Islam.

This was our first immersion course that was a half-and-half collaboration. Lectures and video presentations focused on Islamand Indonesian culture, history, politics and economics and were interspersed with trips to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhistmonument, the Prambanan Hindu temple complex, where we could enjoy a dance-drama of the epic Ramayana, and the palace of the Sultan of Yogyakarta state.The high point came when we lived for two days in a pesantren, an Islamic boarding-school, where Indonesian boys and girls learn both their religion and required subjects.The world’s largestMuslim country (200 million of the country’s population of 240 million), Indonesia is probably themost open to interreligious dialogue, and it seemed so – in different and surprising ways.

We returned to Berkeley andwrote it up, in 12-page papers on specific topics with accurate scholarship and deep personal and religious reflection.But it hasn’t ended. Just today, Fr. Jerry Hayes (CFN) sent an e-mail to one of his friends there (friendship is the first pillar of dialogue), and we are planning to return next January.

In Berkeley comes the bread and butter course: interreligious dialogue. The spring 2006 term brought 15 relatively experienced students from the Graduate Theological Union’s eight schools: a retired elementary school principal from Pacific Lutheran School and a Japanese Catholic Ph.D. student in religion and art, both women, an Alabama journalist from the American Baptist School of the West, and six Jesuits, including a Puerto Rico-born New York labor organizer and a Chinese Indonesian dedicated to dialogue with Muslims.

Short meditations, many based on Anthony de Mello’s Sadhana, began our classes, and we read authors from Pope John Paul II to Raimon Panikkar and Jacques Dupuis. A high point was a required local “immersion” in a temple, mosque, synagogue, meditation center or the like. The resulting 10-page papers described and evaluated five Buddhist, four Muslim, four Jewish and two Hindu experiences. The central theme of my teaching is threefold: 1) salvation: that God wills to save all people; 2) demographics: though about one-third of the world is Christian, the remaining four billion are not; and 3) the two great commandments – love of God should lead us to find where and how God is active in the religious lives of others, and love of neighbor to take seriously her or his faith.

Another course is relevant: theology of religions with the central question “What does the existence of other religions mean for a Christian (or any believer)? ”Interreligious questions – of relations, of theology, of dialogue – are important from beginning to end of the course in authors like Paul Knitter, Francis Clooney, Michael von Bruck and the Dalai Lama.The liveliest andmost productive action is intra-Christian questioning, for example in 2004, when a bright, pastorally sensitive Evangelical chaplain traded insights and challenges with five Catholics, a Protestant and a Unitarian, with students of other religions looking on in wonder. Many of the questions had to do with Knitter’s “teetertotter” (“Introducing Theologies of Religions”), balancing the Christian tension between God’s desire to save all people and the uniqueness and necessity for salvation of Jesus and the Church. When one side is up, the other seems down; yet both have their truth. This tension does not seem to go away. Finally, there was this past January’s joyful and fruitful immersion course, our third in India. Though we were unable to meet with the brilliant Hindu guru with whom I study in Mumbai, our luck was incredibly good. We had fortunate encounters with Fr. Placido Fonseca (BOM), the genius for 30 years behind Snehasadan, the street kids’ turnaround project; Dr. B.K.S. Iyengar, the world’s greatest Yoga master, at his institute in Pune; and Gurunath, our driver to the Buddhist and Hindu caves at Ajanta and Ellora, who turned out to be the very embodiment of a Hindu lover of God. We clapped along with his tape player’s Marathi language songs to God Vitthal! Lectures on Hinduism and the Christian theology of the oppressed (Dalit) peoples were frequent and helpful, but we will remember more the lively activists of Vimochana Women’s Centre in Bangalore, Dona Fernandes and Madhu. Veteran leaders of demonstrations since 1979, they are young enough to speak tirelessly and hopefully against domestic abuse and discrimination against women. Our students visited a school and village of Dalit people, Anekal, in which Fr. Anil D’Mello (KAR) and his assistants were making intelligent and courageous initiatives. We visited St. Thomas the Apostle’s tomb and the great Hindu temples in Madras and celebrated St. Sebastian’s big feast near Cochin, with descendants of St. Thomas’ Christians. The outstanding theologian, Fr.Michael Amaladoss (MDU), spoke with us, and we wrote about dialogues with Hindus and Sikhs, Indian Christian Liturgy,and the interplay of religion and culture.

Seeing religion within Indian culture will forever help us to discern religion better in our own culture and to act intelligently in its regard. Dialogue helps us see our own faith better and creates openness to our neighbor’s faith.

Redington (MAR) is professor of interreligious dialogue at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

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